Washington Capitals 2012 first-round pick Tom Wilson has played just two games for the Hershey Bears, but he’s already made a huge impact. After scoring 9 goals (including a hat trick) and 17 points in 12 playoff games with the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers, Wilson scored his first professional goal on Sunday for the Hershey Bears. And it happened because he got under the skin of 2011-12 AHL leading scorer Chris Bourque.
When the Washington Capitals let Alex Semin walk last summer, they left a big hole in their top six. That hole has not been permanently filled yet, but there are two talented draft picks who might be a good fit in the future: Evgeny Kuznetsov and Filip Forsberg.
Players get older; they slow down. Elite goal scorers drop off as they enter their late twenties. It’s time to realize this has happened to Alex Ovechkin. He may have the same name as the guy who scored 65 goals five years ago, but he is far from the same player. And it’s not his fault.
Nine of Ovechkin’s 15 goals have come off the same shot from the same spot: a one-timer from the circles. Seven of those have been on the power play. More remarkably, Ovechkin has not held the puck for more than a second on any of his goals this season save for one. He no longer scores on the rush.
The Washington Capitals invested $123 million dollars in Alex Ovechkin. They cannot have him not score. If he isn’t scoring the way he used to, they will adjust the game plan for him. That’s exactly what first year head coach Adam Oates has done. The new power play he instituted is designed to get Ovechkin the puck at any costs — and it works brilliantly. Ten of his 15 tallies this year (2/3) have come on the power play, the highest ratio of power play to even-strength goals of any player with more than 10 markers. He leads the NHL in man advantage goals.
Their defensive depth was supposed to be a strength. The plan for the Washington Capitals was to have nine blueliners with serious NHL experience at their deposal, ready to jump into to a game at any minute. It didn’t work out that way. The pair of Karl Alzner and John Carlson has struggled, giving up a majority of the team’s goals against. The other D-men haven’t been much better. Tom Poti has played three games in two years. Mike Green is scoreless. And then there are the injuries. Jack Hillen went down after playing less than four minutes. Dmitry Orlov has been out indefinitely. The Caps have been forced to call up Tomas Kundratek.
So what happened to Orlov, one of the team’s rising stars? While skating for the Hershey Bears in the AHL Showcase at Verizon Center in November, the young Russian absorbed a hit up high from Emerson Etem. He didn’t appear to be favoring anything when he attempted to play one more shift that night, leading many to believe he suffered a concussion. In an interview with RMNB’s Ian Oland, Bears coach Mark French did not confirm or deny that Orlov may have received a concussion on the hit.
“The only thing we’ve said so far — as far as my understanding — is that it’s an upper body injury,” French told Ian. “It’s above my pay grade and above my qualifications to say any more. It’s certainly an upper body injury.”
“Our hope is that once we regroup as a team following the All-Star break he would be able to skate,” said the coach.
Over the offseason the Hershey Bears saw several key veterans sign elsewhere, such as future AHL Hall of Famer Keith Aucoin, 2011-12 AHL leading scorer Chris Bourque, and fan-favorite enforcer Joel Rechlicz. The team also had to deal with a peculiar problem due to the lockout: two head coaches, Mark French and new Caps bench boss Adam Oates. Capitals general manager George McPhee mandated that Hershey learn Oates’ new system, so that the organization’s minor league players could be used to it by the time NHL games started being played. All this change has seen the team scuffle to a .500 record through 34 games this season (16-16-1-1).
But now things are starting to look up. Before it was announced that the lockout had been lifted, Hershey had been getting its best goaltending of the year from Braden Holtby, who was recently named AHL player of the month for December. Stan Galiev, who had been struggling with his transition from junior hockey, is starting to look more comfortable on the ice and more worthy of his #29 prospect ranking from Hockey Prospectus. The organization also has a surplus of quality goaltenders in the ECHL knocking at the door of the AHL: Philipp Grubauer and 2012 seventh-round pick Sergey Kostenko.
On Saturday, after the Bears’ 3-1 loss to the Binghamton Senators, I asked French if this is the best he’s seen Braden Holtby play, if the sky is the limit for Riley Barber, and if Caps fans should be worried about Galiev’s early season struggles.
Dima sits with the other Bears scratches during Saturday’s Bears game. (Photo credit: Katie Stansbery)
When Dmitry Orlov came out of the tunnel for the AHL Showcase game last month, he was excited to see fans back at Verizon Center. It was the reason why, in his opinion, he played the best hockey of his season. The AHL gamesheet says that the 21-year-old defenseman recorded two shots on goal that first period, but Dima remembered it being closer to four or five.
After spending two weeks recovering, Orlov has begun riding an exercise bike and lifting weights. According to Hershey Bears head coach Mark French, Orlov is close to getting back on the ice for practice again.
In a move both surprising and logical, the Capitals announced Sunday that Adam Oates would serve as co-coach of the AHL’s Hershey Bears with head coach Mark French for the duration of the lockout. Caps assistant coaches Calle Johansson, Tim Hunter, and Blaine Forsythe and goaltending coaches Dave Prior and Olie Kolzig will — in George McPhee’s words — “be involved at different times” and also help out with the Capitals’ ECHL affiliate, Reading Royals.
Dripping with sweat after a thirty-minute session on a stationary bike, I asked Dmitry Orlov how he was feeling Saturday night after the biggest game of his professional career.
“Not good. We lost.”
Orlov, a 20-year-old offensive defenseman from Novokuznetsk, Russia, could have cared less about his first ever three-point performance, the fact that he rifled three shots on net, or that he was on the ice for three minutes of the game’s five-minute overtime– big-time minutes for a young player.
In early February, when Metallurg Novokuznetsk failed to reach the KHL playoffs, Dmitry Orlov worked out a deal with the team’s management. Instead of being sent down to the MHL to play for Metallurg’s affiliate during their playoff run, Orlov started his professional career in the Capitals’ organization to work towards his goal of becoming an NHL player.
Orlov went on to total nine points in the remaining 19 games of the AHL regular season, and he experienced his first ever AHL playoff series, a 4-2 series loss to the Charlotte Checkers.
The six-foot Novokuznetsk native is now back in DC, participating in his first ever NHL Training Camp. I caught up with Hershey Bears Head Coach Mark French — the same man who guided the Bears to an AHL record 60 wins and the team’s eleventh Calder Cup in 2010 — and asked him about Orlov’s rookie season, what he needs to improve to make the NHL, and if Dima has the potential to be a 20-goal scorer in the NHL.